Creswell Crags has launched a set of 3 exclusive ‘Witch Marks’ face coverings as part of its online fundraising campaign, to help support the organisation through the second national COVID-19 lockdown.
The high quality masks, available in black, sage green, and autumnal brown, with a white design, show apotropaic ‘Witch Marks’ directly taken from the symbols scratched into the walls of Robin Hood Cave, which were first identified in 2019. These Apotropaic marks, from the Greek apotrepein, meaning ‘to turn away’, were scribed into walls and ceilings of the caves, over dark holes and large crevices with the objective of keeping away demons and evil spirits. The face covering design has been especially created for Creswell Crags by design company, Black Dog.
The Creswell Crags discovery is believed to be the largest collection of apotropaic marks in the UK. No one knows exactly why there are nearly 1000 of these marks in the depths of the limestone cave – which millennia earlier was a shelter for prehistoric humans, bears, woolly rhinoceros and hyenas – but there have been several theories. These include the idea that superstitious local residents thought the cave was a ‘hell mouth’ and wanted to keep the demons inside; that the cave was used for storage and the marks used to protect whatever was kept inside; that the cave was associated with legends of local witches or that – considering most of the marks were made around the era of the Plague pandemic in the 17th century – they were put there to guard against disease and infection.
The number and variety of witch mark designs found at Creswell Crags is unprecedented. Among the most common found are the double VV engravings which are believed to make reference to Mary, Virgin of Virgins and similarly PM is Pace Maria. Others are believed to be devices for capturing or trapping ‘evil’ and these include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes. The marks appear to have been added to over time and may indicate a need to strengthen the protection in response to a period of unexpected sickness, death or poor crops. The caves were excavated by archaeologists during the 19th century and in the process, widened. This may account for why some surfaces feature no marks and might suggest that there were originally an even greater number.
Academic and TV presenter, Professor Ronald Hutton, an authority on folklore, said:
“Creswell Crags has already amazed the twenty-first century with its revelations of Palaeolithic designs. Now it does so again with a fresh one of medieval and early modern ritual protection marks on a huge scale, making a very important contribution, at a stroke, to one of the most significant current areas of new scholarly research.”
Creswell Crags have been working with academics and experts from Historic England to better understand the full significance and extent of the discovery and this is a significant step forward. Creswell Crags are protected as a scheduled monument and Historic England advises on its future management.
The visitor attraction is managed by an independent registered charity, Creswell Heritage Trust, and only survived the COVID-19 lockdown as a result of several grants of emergency funding, including from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic England, and the DCMS Culture Recovery Fund. Although forecast to survive the second national lockdown which begun on 5th November, by making use of the furlough scheme and enabling staff to work from home, the Trust will once again lose vital visitor income during the lockdown – unable to operate its cafe and shop, or run cave tours or school visits for at least a month.
Masks are available as a reward for donating to the Creswell Crags Crowdfunder, with a minimum donation of £8. Donations over £10 will be entered in a prize draw to win an exclusive piece of ‘Flow Art’ from Creswell Crags remote Artist in Residence, John Holt.